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Mike Reinstein

Singer, songwriter, guitarist


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Writing Songs For Children

By Mike Reinstein

Mike Reinstein is a music teacher and an experienced children’s songwriter. In this article he describes the process of writing songs with straightforward advice on how you can do this for yourself.


I’ve been writing songs and performing for many years but have written with children in mind since 1995 when I was appointed the music co-ordinator at Oaktree, an all-age school in north London for children with moderate learning difficulties.
When I took up my post at Oaktree I needed to find songs that were simply expressed, musically accessible and age appropriate. I felt that much of the repertoire around at the time was a bit old-fashioned and/or too complicated so I decided to try my hand at writing for this specific group. I was at the school for 7 years and wrote lots of songs, twenty of which were gathered together in 2005 on a CD called The Tommy Tomato Songbook. Since that time I’ve continued to compose and am now teaching in mainstream infant and junior schools. The Tommy Tomato material works well with these children and I’ve tailored my subsequent writing for them. A new CD of children’s songs is to be released this year.
How you can get started
The basic premise of this article is to share the thoughts I bear in mind as I set about writing a song for KS1 children. I’m going to assume that the teacher reading this is not a music specialist so there’ll be a minimum of technical terms. But if you do have musical skills, at whatever level, I still hope you’ll find something useful in the following.
A song begins with an idea…
Fortunately teachers are in an environment that is rich with possibilities for song writing. You can find ideas in the curriculum, in wider school activities and in issues that might arise in Circle Time: bullying, making friends, doing your best and so on. You’re also surrounded by wonderful and imaginative little brains that will come up with wonderful and imaginative suggestions. Recently I’ve been asked to write about a talking dress, a cat on the moon and penguins that go gliding on the ice.    Once you have something to work on, the golden rule is to keep to one idea for the song and not to over-complicate the lyric. Take ‘Wheels On The Bus’, for example. The text focuses purely on what happens on the bus itself - the passengers, the wheels, wipers etc. It wouldn’t work so well if there were verses that referred to other vehicles, to road safety and the merits or otherwise of public transport!
As I’ve suggested earlier, songs can deal with serious issues as well as the playful stuff. The potent mix of a poignant tune and lyric as in ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’, for example, really resonates with this age group.
The language used must, of course, be appropriate but, as with the most successful children’s books, this doesn’t mean that the basic idea has to be too simplistic. Here’s a sample lyric from a song I wrote about sharing problems that Childline picked up on to use in one of their anti-bullying campaigns:

If the feeling is true
Trust yourself
It’s up to you
Don’t hide away
If it’s in your heart
Then say.

Appropriateness of language also means that some words ‘sing’ better than others. Once you’ve got your first draft, try singing or chanting the words. Do they sound awkward or do they flow easily? My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean’ is a good example of singable lyrics with lots of open vowel sounds and plenty of repetition.
Here’s another one from Africa with words that flow; you might not know the tune but just try chanting this verse!
(translates as Thank you Father, Thank you Jesus, Everyone is Blessed)
I’ve also found that it’s important not to cram the verses with too many words. Children of this age find it difficult to get their mouths around dense textual phrasing.
Most of the songs I write follow a verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure but not exclusively so. However, what seems to be essential for any children’s song is a good deal of repetition – this can be a chorus of four lines or a short refrain at the end of a verse. Well known and loved favourites bear this out – What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor, She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, Ants Go Marching, The Bear Went Over The Mountain and many others.
Another important ingredient is the use of rhyme. Apart from developing literacy skills, this element adds fun and helps with the learning of the song. Here’s a couplet that the children love from a song I wrote called Cheesey Feet, the title of which was suggested bya year 1 pupil:
They smell me here, they smell me there
I’m a walking, talking Camembert!’
When I teach a song or a chant, I use a technique called ‘Call and Response’, i.e. I lead the children singing a short phrase and they sing it back to me. We do this until the song is learned. But there are also songs and chants that are designed specifically in a call and response structure with or without a tune. Here’s one I wrote without a tune – just repeat each line:
I’m a dinosaur
I’m a dinosaur
With a terrifying jaw
And a nasty looking claw
You couldn’t call me sweet
I eat a lot of meat
And if you saw me on the street
I’m not a Brontosaurus
I’m not a Stegosaurus
Or a Diplodocus
I don’t eat greens
It’s too late to phone
It’s too late to text
I’m a Tyrannosaurus Rex. GRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!
The Tune
The most frequent question a songwriter will be asked is, ‘What came first when you wrote that song – the tune or the words?’ I find that hard to answer because it’s never the same from one song to another. When it comes to writing a tune for children, particularly if you’ve not done it before, I’d suggest two approaches. The first is to take a well known song and write your own lyrics. For example, using the tune of My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean, here’s a re-working around the theme of monsters:
A monster is here in my garden
A monster is waiting for me
This monster says I beg your pardon
When spilling his first cup of tea
Monsters, monsters
Don’t have a monster for tea, for tea
Monsters, monsters
Don’t have a monster for tea, for tea
I know it’s not Paul McCartney but I hope you get the idea!
The second approach is to create your own tune. You don’t need to be able to play an instrument but it’s helpful if you have some means of recording yourself. If you’re not a musician ask for help in finding the note middle C on a glockenspiel or a piano. This is a good starting place for your song because a comfortable range for KS1 voices goes from middle C to the G above. As they get older, their vocal range increases at either end. Try some simple lyrics – even if they’re meaningless at this stage – and see what materializes. You’ve almost certainly got yourself a tune.
A medium or slow tempo is probably ideal for this age group. It’s important that children be able to enunciate all the words comfortably and with expression. Having said that, children do love to take a previously sedate song and speed it up. Perhaps you could include that exercise when your class has familiarized itself with your composition!
I love to incorporate actions into songs. Children will make up their own moves suggested by the lyrics – as gestures or dance movements. And I’ve also used Makaton, the sign language designed to help people with communication difficulties, as an effective way of teaching a song and also as a part of the song itself. Here’s a traditional lyric that describes actions:
A pocket full of posies.
Atishoo, atishoo,
We all fall down!
And here’s one from me:
Hand out
Turn it round
Hand out
Turn it round
Shake your head
Wink your eye
Cross your heart
Touch sky
All fall down!

          Songwriting for children can be a joyful experience and is a further creative tool to re-inforce subject areas and to explore emotional issues. You can make bespoke compositions that relate directly to the class, the school or the wider curriculum by following some of the ideas I’ve outlined. Your pupils are your audience and when you come to share your song with them, they’ll let you know right away if you’re on to a winner. Good luck!

Key Points

Useful websites: This is a fantastic website where you can find hundreds of wonderful songs. Very inspiring!
The Tommy Tomato Songbook CD is available from  You can hear a couple of sample tracks there too.
This article appeared in the July 2011 edition of the magazine 5-7 Educator. It appears here with their kind permission.

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